The Gorbals effect — You cannae throw a jeely piece oot a 20-story flat! | by Duncan Hynd | Mar, 2024

I inhabit a weak, frail, decayed tenement; battered by the winds and broken in on by the storms, and, from all I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair — US President John Quincy Adams

Getting to the Gorbals in Glasgow from Queen Street station via George Square these days is far safer than it used to be. A quick stroll past the statue of the Duke of Wellington on his horse replete with a traffic cone on his head outside the MoMa and passing east through the bohemian areas of Candleriggs and Merchant City, where you are more likely to be accosted with a giant blow up willy in an area infamous for hen weekends and onwards towards the north bank of the Clyde where you come to Glasgow Green and the Albert Bridge. On the other side of the bridge is the Gorbals, unrecognisable from the early sixties when its first regeneration from an infamous tenement slum began.

Pic: The Gorbals residential changes apparent. From tenements razed in the 60’s, then to tower blocks blown up in the new millennium to an aspirational area to live these days. Image courtesy creative commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic.

My visit was to the Gorbals Library, just over the bridge and to view 21 black and white ‘ghosts’ of the area when this change was in full swing and documented by famous Glasgow based, Italian snapper Oscar Marzaroli’s photographs. His photos in this display pick out people, old and young with the back drop of the infamous tenements being cleared.

Of the 21 images, one stood out immediately. It was of a young boy, probably my age at the time, sitting on an impromptu chair, a fire burning in an open brazier, staring into the lens with a backdrop of demolished tenements and I couldn’t help but think that while I have led a privileged life of fairly unlimited opportunities, he would likely not have. I called him Stuart. On the very same day some Scottish cancer statistics were released that made appalling reading as I’ll come to below. When added to the ‘Glasgow effect’ that we will explore shortly, life expectancy in this city is still a national disgrace.

Oscar Marzaroli (1933–1988) was an Italian-born Scottish photographer of post-World War Two inner-city Scotland. He was born in Castiglione Vara in northwest Italy and moved to Scotland at two years of age.

He famously worked as a photographer on the streets of Glasgow, his most iconic images of the city were taken in the 60s as the tenements were being demolished. He also made films and took photos all over Scotland. I’m unable for copyright reasons to show his photographs here but the exhibition is ongoing and more details and some of his images are available here:

His most well-known Gorbals photographs from 1963, depict some young boys wearing their mothers old high-heeled shoes or a pair that they had found on the street. This image was recreated as a sculpture in 2008 as part of a further regeneration of the area as after the tenements were razed and the subsequent hugely unpopular tower blocks were literally blown up some years later. A local artist called Liz Peden, part of the Gorbals Art Project has cast the scene in bronze using some local school children as modern models.

An archive of over 50,000 photographs taken by Marzaroli have been donated to Glasgow Caledonian University while the university will now try to raise £200,000 to preserve the archive and digitally store them.

Pic: A boy in stilettos in the Gorbals — Image courtesy creative commons licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed. Attribution-Non-Commercial — No Derivs 2.0 Generic

The sculptures, installed in Queen Elizabeth Square provide an historical link between the 1960s tenements and the areas now modern housing developments that are still ongoing. The identity of the original three kids playing in Kidston Street in 1963 as captured in Marzaroli’s famous image has yet to be resolved.

Sadly, the statues were cut down and stolen in early ’23 but later found dumped by a railway line and are to be reinstated. It beggars belief that people would try to destroy this historic window into their past for a few quid. Enough said.

Scotland revealed as one of the worst countries in the developed world for cancer survival rates

The headline that caught my eye when in the Gorbals Library was this one above while further research has shown some unsurprisingly poor statistics related to cancer diagnosis when linked to levels of deprivation and also some more surprising ones.

The Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce (LSCT) studies survival rates for lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach cancers. Grouped together these tumours have a five-year survival rate of just 16%. These types of cancer make up circa half of all common cancer deaths in the UK with more than 90,000 diagnosed annually. The article I read suggested that survival rates in Scotland for these tumours are poor when compared to the rest of the UK and Europe, while cancer waiting time targets have not been met for over a decade here. Research funding for these conditions lags behind that for more common cancers.

However, as we know pancreatic cancer survival rates do skew these statistics as currently in the UK 70% of patients do not receive any treatment at all for pancreatic cancer as early diagnosis is almost impossible and so inevitably of the 10,000 people diagnosed annually, just ten per cent receive surgery, the only potentially curative treatment.

My blog on pancreatic cancer from last year is reprised here:

Cancer incidence in Scotland and a further focus on Glasgow

There were 35,379 new cancers registered in Scotland in 2021, an increase of 5.5% compared with 2019.

Some fairly recent long-term studies undertaken during the start of the new millennium have looked at the socio-economic inequalities in the incidence of four common cancers in the West of Scotland and Glasgow. Data was collected on cases of prostate, colorectal, lung and breast cancer where the patient’s age, sex and postcodes were used to define their socio-economic status when diagnosed and to ascertain approximate levels of deprivation.

Some increases were found in the incidence of colorectal cancer in the more deprived regions in males and increasingly females. The incidence of lung cancer had the strongest links with patient’s socio-economic environment, with even higher increases in women seen latterly in the period.

Paradoxically, prostate and breast cancer showed the opposite trends, with a lower incidence rate among people living in more deprived areas which confirms that the aetiology of the two most common male and female cancers are far more complex than the often used ‘post-code’ lottery headlines suggest!

Some more recently published NHS based statistics show mortality rates for all types of cancer were 74 per cent higher in the most deprived parts of the Scotland than more affluent areas with Glasgow a hot spot for liver cancer diagnosis due to rising obesity levels, alcohol use and hepatitis at a level substantially higher than the national average.

While early diagnosis and waiting times to start cancer treatment still make the headlines, it does seem that lifestyle choices and in many cases, your often no choice socio-economic status still define your chances of surviving a cancer diagnosis in Scotland.

These poor statistics are certainly no badge of honour for Scotland and neither are the figures for life expectancy here, especially in Glasgow and often called the Glasgow Effect that I’ll come to.

In the Gorbals Library, I assumed that my alter-ego Stuart was now dead and hoped that he had had a good life, the one that was all ahead of him in the powerful image I saw. Sadly I’ll never know.

The Gorbals transformed

The 1960s in Glasgow were a momentous time for the city as it slowly began to reverse out from its role in the industrial revolution and the days of leading the world in shipbuilding, largely based on the Clyde while its notorious housing stock such as that in the Gorbals, renowned as one of the worst slums in Europe was razed to the ground to be replaced by trendy new tower blocks. These decisions taken by Glasgow Corporation had immediate health benefits accrued from ready access to toilets and running water while overcrowding was also eased.

The tenement blocks in the Gorbals were built from the famous red sandstone blocks in the 1840s to provide low cost housing for the working class to meet the needs of the rapidly growing local industries. By the 1930s the Gorbals district including Laurieston and Hutchesontown housed about 90,000 people in the direct locality with up to eight family members sharing a room, 30 sharing a toilet and 40 sharing a tap. Raw sewerage flowed in the streets. This population comprised 100,000 souls per square mile!

By the end of its first regeneration in the 60s the Gorbals was home to 16 high rise tower blocks of which only six are standing as of today with two about to be razed very shortly it has been said.

As part of the regeneration of the infamous district that to me on my visit seemed like an aspirational and vibrant area to live with new social housing, fashionable apartments, shopping centres, restaurants, bars and cafes, a new library and a tangible community spirit the boy’s statues have been strategically placed as a reminder of the darker days.

You cannae throw a Jeely piece oot a 20-story flat!

When I became a foster carer in Scotland at the ripe old age of 50 I learned to my surprise what a ‘piece’ actually was. It’s not that dissimilar to when I was at primary school and having a couple of digestive biscuits wrapped in greaseproof paper for break time. Nowadays it’s more likely to be an apple and banana, a bag of crisps, a small box of raisins or a penguin but in the past more likely to have been simply a low-cost jam sandwich or in the Scottish parlance a ‘jammy piece’. In Glasgow the word for jam was ‘jeely’ as in jelly hence the name ‘jeely piece’…still with me?

In the days of the tenements, parents would throw their kids their piece out of the windows to save them having to stop playing outside but when the tower blocks replaced them this became more difficult hence the phrase ‘You cannae throw a Jeely piece oot a 20-story flat!’

Pic: The main ingredient of a jeely piece! Probably not this make though.

Glasgow’s famous Jeely Piece poem and song written by Adam McNaughton captured the essence of unpopular ’60s high-rise living that while it provided all the ‘mod-cons’ that run-down tenements didn’t, it lacked a community focus and the possibility to throw snacks out of the windows.

Castlemilk was one such tower block development as was Mitchell Hill Road that somehow housed 570 families, but were demolished in 2005. Both are mentioned in the song but succumbed to high rates of crime and eventually as living conditions worsened, also succumbed to the bulldozer and lots of TNT.

The block named Anniesland Court is not only the tallest building in Scotland at 22 floors but has a category A listing and so survives to this day.

The poem briefly goes like this:

I’m a skyscraper wean

I love on the nineteenth flair

But I’m no gaun’ oot to play ony mair

Since we moved to Castlemilk

I’m wasting away

Cos I’m gettin’one less meal every day

Oh ye cannae fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat

The rest can be found here on youtube, enjoy:

A ‘Poverty Safari’

Darren McGarvey, is a Scottish writer and rapper who has written two leading books on poverty and deprivation, one called ‘Poverty Safari’ and the latest one just launched and named ‘The Social Distance Between Us’ a neat play on words linking the government’s recent pandemic messaging where social distancing became part of our lexicon for ever more and the impact of class on our social status, health and wellbeing. In the latter offering, I am certainly one of the target audience and demographic, being privileged middle class and by default according to Darren accepting the societal status quo. There are many questions asked on how class affects our lives but less in the way of solutions, however I will certainly never view class the same way as I did before I read this paperback that provides much food for thought. It’s a good read.

The anecdote about parachuting a young Boris Johnson into Pilton in North Edinburgh, one of the most deprived areas of the tourist hot-spot that is the city of Edinburgh, paradoxically a UNESCO world heritage site to see if he could still become Prime Minister is a well-made point as is the fact that the lower classes fill many key roles in a working society that no one else wants to and could be seen to be a deliberate act of government.

Those in power in the UK live lives that are hugely socially (as the latter book is titled) and literally distanced from those that need most help, and cannot possibly be in a position to make fundamental, impactful and permanent changes to society to release people from the spiral of deprivation that ‘thrives exponentially, passed down from generation to generation like a devastating disease’ as Trainspotting’s author Irvine Welsh has pointed out before.

But what if you parachute someone into Glasgow, especially a middle-class young English woman called Ellie Harrison to perform a well-funded, year-long live performance to see why Glasgow is impacted by some of the worst life expectancies in the world, would that achieve anything ground-breaking or just produce more ultimately misunderstood rhetoric?

As Darren McGarvey said back in 2016 and I quote…’Its horrendously crass to parachute someone in on a poverty safari while local authorities are cutting finance to things like music tuition for Scotland’s poorest kids. I don’t know the artist personally but I think we’d all benefit more from an insight into what goes on in the minds of some of Scotland’s middle class’. However, he had a bit of an epiphany once the project had been completed saying that he had been unable to see the woods for the tress and that in all her ‘middle-class glory’ Ellie was not an ‘enemy but an ally’ in the lifetime class war he had been fighting.

His book ‘Poverty Safari’ is loosely based on Ellie Harrison’s ‘Glasgow Effect’ project which I will now enlighten you on but I need to explain firstly that the project commenced in 2016 taking one year and the subsequent book with the same title was released later in 2019.

The Glasgow Effect — part one — Ellie Harrison

How would your career, social life, family ties, carbon footprint and mental health be affected if you could not leave the city where you live. What are the limiting factors and associated health risks of social and actual mobility in Glasgow?

The Glasgow effect ‘chips hit the fan’ as Ellie rightly said in January 2016 when it became newsworthy that a ‘middle aged, mid-life crisis, middle class Englishwoman was going to be paid to critique the working class and their ills for a year’.

Her reading of Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari book inspired her to eventually write her book on her work later on, while her project inspired Darren to write his tome, Poverty Safari but despite overt differences in backgrounds and lived experiences they came to arguably similar conclusions. Still with me?

The project was very simplistic in nature in that she would not travel beyond Glasgow’s city limits or use any vehicles except for a bicycle for 365 days. She had a grant from Creative Scotland of £15,000 which would be her living allowance and proposed to live a low carbon lifestyle of the future but being an English artist living in the post-industrial, second city of the empire, it wasn’t long until her project began to become noticed by the media and those fighting the endless cycle of deprivation. It didn’t go down well with the locals hence its other adopted title of a ‘poverty safari’.

She quickly discovered that while some people travel the world chasing work, others are trapped in a never- ending cycle of deprivation caused by a desperate lack of jobs and opportunities in their community and can’t even afford to catch the bus into town. She eats cheap, unhealthy foods, gets an overriding love for chips and finds herself dragged into the well-trodden, downward spiral faced by many of Glasgow’s residents.

Her summary was that we should look to try to create a sustainable city of the future for everyone to lead ‘healthy, happy and creative lives’ while she used her somewhat privileged position as an artist to as ‘change the failing economic status quo and ruffle feathers of a corrupt, complacent Glasgow establishment’. A ‘think global, act local’ philosophy a little like the ‘Small Is Beautiful’ concept but focusing on improving where we live and winning back the city from the often, malign forces of local administration.

To those who could not afford to leave Glasgow in any scenario, Harrison’s Creative Scotland-funded “lockdown” seemed in poor taste. But it touched on an interesting question: is the ability to move about and switch locations integral to advancement? Is staying in one place the same thing as being stuck in another sense? — Natalie Whittle, Financial Times, July 2020

All people involved on a day to day basis with severe socio-economic problems will tell you that we need to urgently transform broken political systems otherwise poverty becomes the only sustainable thing as Irvine Welsh rightly pointed out above.

The Glasgow Effect — part two — death and taxes

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes — Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, 1789

The Glasgow effect is a reality, not just a book about an infamous project. It directly refers to the lower life expectancy of residents of Glasgow compared to the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. In Scotland we get taxed more than the rest of the UK and death it seems comes to us far earlier than elsewhere, but why?

The phenomenon is defined popularly online as excess mortality in the West of Scotland after adjustments are made for deprivation. Although lower income levels are often associated with ill health and a shorter life, scientists have argued that poverty alone does not appear to account for the divergence found in Glasgow. It was initially thought that with younger people leaving the poorer areas sooner to either work elsewhere or live in better social housing, this has skewed the age of the demographic but deprived areas of the England such as Liverpool and Manchester have higher life expectancies while the wealthiest ten percent of the population of Glasgow have lower life expectancy than the same group in other UK cities.

Excess mortality and morbidity

Glasgow’s excess mortality rate was not overtly obvious until the 50s and has actually deepened since the 70s. ‘It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians’ said The Economist in 2012!

As of 2016, life expectancy in Scotland was lower for both females and males than anywhere else in western Europe with little sign of improvement. In Glasgow life expectancy is 71.6 years for men, nearly seven years below the national average and 78 years for women, over four years below. In some specific local areas male life expectancy is shockingly as low as 54 years according to the WHO in 2008.

Sadly, a cold statistic remains that overall, one in four men in Glasgow will die before their sixty-fifth birthday, that’s an awful 25%.

While the most obvious causes of the effect such as drinking alcohol, unhealthy food, drugs, smoking, obesity, gambling, cancer, heart disease, stroke, violence, suicide, risky behaviour, cultural male domination or the alpha-male syndrome, you name them, it may well be that in Glasgow, the stress response, which originally evolved to protect us from physical attack or danger when we were until fairly recently still hunter gatherers looking for food, is now activated in response to more common, everyday events. Concerns over money and debt, work or unemployment related pressure or low social status and skills, trigger our neuro-physiological protection mechanisms far too often for our own good.

The chronic activation of stress responses to events that are minor but to us are perceived to be threatening exposes us to high levels of fight or flight reactions for all the wrong reasons. It is not the magnitude of these that affect us, but the high cost to our health of continuous exposure to potentially lethal levels of elevated stress hormones it seems. Research suggests that this may well contribute to higher levels of ill health in Glasgow.

The good news however, is that it is now scientifically proven that physical activity is the one major stress reducing activity that is free to all of us and so despite the deck of cards that life deals us, the best way to counter damaging levels of stress is to get outside and walk for many miles around Glasgow, you don’t ever have to leave it, just walk around it. It’s got some great parks, open spaces and the Clyde river banks as a start and that will also partly help to deal with Scotland’s rampant obesity endemic too, so a win-win.

To end — a picture can say a thousand words

This powerful image by Kirsty McKay that I took at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh recently at the ‘Making Space: Photographs of Architecture’ exhibit shows two children walking home from school in Drumchapel in Glasgow and is from a 2018 series called ‘The Fish That Never Swam’ that looks at how housing directly affects life expectancy in the city.

The tenements have gone and now barren land is all that exists bar a few old roads and lamp posts however these two boys have a life expectancy of 12 years less than those living in the near-by and well to do, wealthier area of Bearsden. It’s a further example of the continuing malign influence of the Glasgow effect that no one really can fully explain.

I hope you enjoyed my brief trip to the Gorbals and please try a jeely piece, they are rather good!

Duncan Hynd — March 2024 blog. The Gorbals effect — You cannae throw a jeely piece oot a 20-story flat!

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